Some of my seventh graders’ parents have complained, “I can’t get her to say much about school” or “He just says it’s going fine.”
To help facilitate a deeper, more meaningful conversation between parents and students, I decided to incorporate a lesson that asks students to write thoughtful reflections about their learning to send to their parents.
What It Is
Students write a letter to a parent or another authentic audience about something they have learned in class. I use this as an opportunity for students to reflect at the end of an activity, such as reading a novel or viewing a film.
I provide support in the form of a checklist so they know what to include (one example of my checklist & instructions is at the bottom of this post). This elevates the letter from a simple “here’s what I learned today” into a reflection on their learning. I also show them an exemplar so my expectations in terms of length and depth are clear from the beginning.
Why It’s Worth Using
- Provides an authentic communication task with a non-teacher audience
- Doubles as formative assessment of the student’s understanding — reading over their thoughts and questions gives me a better sense of what they know
- Students can choose who they want to write to, so there’s more buy-in
- Lets parents know what is going on in class
- Gives parents an opportunity to further support what is going on in class — through these letters, I have often found out about parents who would make great guest speakers or who had further experience with the topic
How You Can Use It
If you have access to technology at school, your class can write emails to parents or other family members. Some students preferred to write to a favorite teacher, administrator, or counselor. The point is to engage in conversation with another person about their learning, so they should write to someone they feel comfortable with. If your students have access to email, you can also use this as an opportunity to teach email etiquette and what “Cc” and “Bcc” are for.
If you don’t have access to technology, this activity works just as well as a hand-written note (and in fact, can be even more fun for parents to receive this way!). Students can carry the note home or bring in an addressed, stamped envelope to mail it.
I have used this in both English and science classes. In English, students selected one of several empathy-related novels (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Wonder, Fade to Black, Wintergirls, etc.). After reading the novel, they reflected on empathy and wrote about what they had learned from the novel.
In science, students watched the documentary Fed Up about the impact refined sugar has on our diet. This was in conjunction with our unit on carbs, lipids, and proteins. Students reflected on their own food habits and wrote to their parents about how the documentary impacted their thoughts on eating.
This lesson could easily be adapted to any subject area!
Here is an excerpt one of the student letters from our empathy novel unit:
In our ELA unit, we are reading books that will help us develop empathy for some person who is having a pretty big problem. The word empathy means to be able to share/know how someone else feels and to be able to care for them. In this unit, I chose the book Wonder by RJ Palacio. The book is about a boy named August, who was born with a major facial deformity. Before, he was homeschooled, because he and his parents were afraid of what other people would say. But this year, he is beginning his first year at Beecher Prep, in the fifth grade. Throughout the book, August has to suffer through the challenges of middle school, and the horrible things people have to say and do about his face. A way this book helps me develop empathy for people is because you kind of feel for and with him throughout the book… It’s important that we learn about empathy in middle school. It gets us better equipped for the road ahead of us, so we can treat everyone with kindness, even those who are different than we are.
One of my favorite parts of this lesson is when the parents write back!
How could you use this in your classroom? Do you have other ways that you facilitate parent engagement in your lessons?